Standing Up For Change In Your School and Beyond

Even when you’re a veteran educator, it can be difficult to know when you’re being taken advantage of in a new school district. At least it was for me. I was in a part-time position as a library specialist, but doing the work of a full-time employee. I thought I just needed to pay my dues and wait until a full-time position became available, but every position that I applied for was largely decided by nepotism. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I felt taken advantage of, but didn’t know if this was just something educators had to go through when they started out. It wasn’t until I talked to an educator leader, who was the former president of the American Association of School Librarians, Terri Grief, that I realized it wasn’t normal.

She recommended that I go talk to the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) Uniserv Director about it. I knew that I was being mistreated before meeting with him but I always thought it was just something that I had to tough out. Everyone has to pay their dues at the beginning of their career, but with 15 years under my belt, hadn’t I already paid my dues? It wasn’t until I talked with him that I realized the magnitude of the discrimination. We talked through how they were docking my extended days and how they weren’t paying my NBCT (National Board Certified Teacher) stipend in full. He helped me realize that these weren’t acceptable working conditions, and how these shouldn’t be things that I just have to get through. 

He not only helped me see my own worth and negotiating power, but he also helped me realize the greater need for change in our schools. After we talked, he recommended I apply for the Kentucky Education Association Fellowship program. I had no idea what it was at first, and actually missed the first meeting, but it has been a truly transformative program for me. I felt so empowered going to my first meeting. The other educators were activists who wanted to create change in our schools, and I was surprised by the amount of stories that were similar to my own.

We all wanted to create change – we wanted to be treated fairly, we wanted respect and we ultimately wanted to do what was best for our students. 

The Fellowship program helped me realize a lot of things that I wanted to help improve in Kentucky’s schools. Our state governor was trying to take away benefits from retirees and passing through bills that would cut pensions for educators. They were all things that we talked about and needed to take a stand against. Enough was enough.

But those weren’t the only issues that I was passionate about changing. The group helped grow my dedication to improving school safety. There have been school shootings across the nation, and my district wasn’t immune to it. There was a recent shooting at the school where my husband graduated almost 20 years ago ­— a school that everyone always viewed as safe. Even though this is happening more and more frequently, I refused to accept this as being the new normal. 

As an educator, there are so many things we can do in our schools to drive change. Being a part of the union showed me that there are ways in which you can create lasting change that extends beyond your own school or school district.

To all of the new educators out there, I would say that it is never too early to try to impact change in your school. I would advise taking a stand by:

Talking to your fellow educators. Speaking to educators who have been where you have been can not only help put things in perspective, it can also help illuminate questions and issues that you may not have thought of before. They can help guide you through your first experiences and offer you advice. If my friend had not recommended talking with my local union affiliate, I never would have received the help and support I needed. Find out how to connect with your local union affiliate here. 

The first step toward fighting against discrimination is to network with other folks like oneself. Second, try to find a support advocacy group like the NEA and the National Organization for Women (NOW). It is also helpful to join closed support groups that employ social media privacy settings, so minority teachers may communicate and share information freely without fear of retaliation from their employer. I am part of a diverse network called We Here which is specifically for librarians of color. Since KEA does not have much in the way of minority teacher support, We Here has been the most valuable means for getting me in touch with other Kentucky librarians of color. I wholeheartedly hope that the NEA will do as much as it can to ensure those of us in the South receive the support and advocacy we so desperately need. 

Finding the issues that matter to you. Watching my students and my daughter go to school, I knew that I wanted them to have a place where they felt protected. Our school district had always seemed like a safe place. I feel like people always say that “these kinds of things can happen anywhere,” as if we do not have a voice or the power to stop school shootings from happening. I didn’t want to just accept that it could happen anywhere — I wanted to change it. Find the issues you are passionate about and fight to change them. You can use the NEA’s Opportunity Checklist to identify key issues in your school and the NEA will send resources to help you fix them.

Getting involved. For me, joining the Kentucky Education Association was instrumental in finding my voice as an educator in impacting policy. Becoming a part of an organization outside of the classroom can help you see education policies from another perspective.

When I think back on my career as a Kentucky educator, I was on the brink of quitting so many times. I was being discriminated against, and felt as though I did not have any power or voice. And I realized I wasn’t alone. Educators around the country felt the same as I did. Librarians were working long hours, administrative staff members weren’t getting the pay they deserved and teachers were not getting the support they needed. I realized to make lasting change in our schools, we needed to work together. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. 

Kentucky Department of Education: Kentucky Education Facts

*all numbers are for the 2016-17 school year unless otherwise noted

Number of school districts

173 (29 female superintendents; 142 male; 3 minority) Two districts did not report superintendents during the 2018 data collection.   

Number of public school teachers (actual headcount) 

42,146 (White – 96%; Minority – 4%; Male – 22%; Female – 78%) 

Number of public school students 

656,588 

 Ethnicity of public school students 

White – 77.4%

African American – 10.6%

Hispanic – 6.4%

Asian – 1.7%

Hawaiian/Pacific Islander – less than 1%

Native American – less than 1%

Two or More Races – 3.6%

 

Christina Rodriguez

Christina Rodriguez is a National Board Certified Teacher and library media specialist in Western Kentucky, previously an army brat from Fort Knox. She recently moved to Marshall County with her Husband and young daughter. She has experience teaching grades K through 12 and currently teaches grades 4 and 5.